Reflections on Psalm 89

“I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord, forever; with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations.”

This is how Psalm 89 begins. With a declaration of intent. Ethan the Ezrahite will sing. And what will he sing of? The steadfast love and faithfulness of the Lord. These twin attributes are repeated over and over in Psalm 89. In verse 2, “steadfast love is built up forever…in the heavens you will establish your faithfulness.” Our attention is continually drawn to the everlasting permanence of God’s covenantal love for his people.

Verse 3 further underlines these attributes by making mention of God’s covenantal promise to David and then verse 5 begins a crescendo of praise that doesn’t end until verse 18.

“Let the heavens praise your wonders…” v. 5

“Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord…awesome above all who are around him? Who is mighty as your are, O Lord?” v. 6, 8

“The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours…” v. 11

“You have a mighty arm; strong is your hand, high your right hand.” v. 13

And then again, the notes of steadfast love and faithfulness punctuate the praise: “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.” v. 14

“You are the glory of their strength…for our shield belongs to the Lord…” v. 17, 18

In verses 19-37, the psalmist returns to the Davidic theme, further emphasizing God’s steadfast love and faithfulness to his chosen King. Do you see the continuing theme? Over and over the psalmist is reminding himself and his audience of God’s character and the blessed state of God’s people. In verses 19-37 I count at least nine times when God uses the words I will. God’s intent is for his people.

So if the psalm ended there we’d have a nice and tidy situation. All praise and all promise. But it doesn’t end there. Notice how verse 38 begins. But now… The tone changes dramatically and if you can imagine the psalm set to music, I’m sure it would modulate into a minor key. But the pattern here seems to go against the typical lament. If you’re familiar with the laments in the book of Psalms, they usually start with the lament and then end with assurance, minor key modulating into the triumphant major. But here we seem to have the reverse. For 37 verses Ethan extols the faithfulness and steadfast love of the Lord. But he ends with lament.

We don’t know his exact situation but a thoughtful reading of the end of this psalm and of Israel’s history can give us a clue. He must be experiencing one of the many low points in the history of God’s people. The psalm says that God’s people are scorned. They are defeated by their foes in battle. They have become ashamed. And Ethan must be confused. What is God doing? In verse 49 he asks where this steadfast love and faithfulness have gone. He may be able to recount it with the eyes of faith but he doesn’t see it in front of his face. There is no resolution by the end of the psalm, only unanswered questions.

We are also confused sometimes about what God is up to. Things seem very backward and wrong seems to continually win out. How do we deal with this confusion? We need to take a lesson from Ethan. It’s not like the bad stuff started happening as he was writing. He was already in it! But he starts in the right way. He spends the first 37 verses of this psalm worshiping God and building himself up in the truths that he knows with his head, despite what he sees with his eyes. I think he’s doing exactly what Jude tells his audience to do at the end of his epistle. “But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.” Jude 20-21. Ethan built up his faith by immersing himself in the truth of who God is and what he’s promised. That then gave him an anchor as he plunged into lament. Let’s not leave out that first step. By starting with praise, we can buffet ourselves in the midst of any storm we’re going through. Our problems won’t be solved immediately but by God’s grace we’ll be able to hang on and even grow deeper in faith as we honestly approach the Lord with our questions. Remember that faith isn’t opposed to asking the hard questions.

So when we find ourselves in the midst of a storm, in a confusing situation where God seems absent, let’s begin where the psalmist did, confidently approaching the Lord in prayer with our own declaration of intent:

“I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord, forever; with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations.” Psalm 89:1

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